Sunday, January 16, 2011

Does God Control Everything? (Genesis 45:3-8)

Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Any time I am on a plane, there are several things I never want to hear over the intercom. Here’s one: “Don’t worry, folks – everything is under control.” When an airline pilot comes on the intercom and announces that “everything is under control,” you can be assured that everything is not, in fact, under control. Don’t worry?? Yeah right! Worrying is exactly what I’m going to do because you just came on and told me not to worry! In fact, now I’m worried even more because you told us that everything is under control, and the only reason you would tell us that everything is under control is because things are not under control!

Today, we are continuing in our series of messages I have simply entitled, “Ask God.” We are wrestling with real questions that thinking people have either for God or about God, focusing on a different one each week. Many times, when thinking people have asked these questions, Christians have responded with canned answers that are so simplistic as to not take seriously the complexity and subtle nuance of the question being asked, and their answers have often been enough to turn people away from the Christian faith.

This series of messages is based on a simple premise: God is not threatened when we have a genuine question, curiosity, or doubt for or about God. The God who gave us gifts of intellect and reason is not threatened when we put those gifts to work.

Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or pencil as we wrestle with this week’s question: “Does God control everything?” The key to understanding these questions lies in understanding the character and nature of God, so let’s open ourselves up to what God reveals to us about God’s self. May we pray.

For many of us, our first understanding of God is a list of characteristics and attributes of God, the first vocabulary for understanding just who God is and what sort of things God is up to in the world.

It is commonly believed that God is several things: omni-present, meaning God is everywhere; omniscient, meaning God knows everything; omnipotent, meaning God is all-powerful. And so we wrap up these beliefs all together in one package – God is in control of everything. We also know that God is love (John 4:8); throughout the Scriptures that is precisely how God is named over and over, which means that God is graceful and merciful and always looking out for our best interests. And so, we end up with a theology that tells us two things: God is in control of everything, and God is loving. It’s a simple theology, but it has a lot of comfort in it.

It’s comforting, at least, until something unpleasant happens. We end up asking some version of the question, “Where is God when bad things happen to good people?” Friends, this is an old question – one that has been debated as long as God’s people have gotten together to wonder and speculate what the one we call “God” is like. Technically, we call this question “theodicy,” – a word that brings together the terms “God” and “justice,” always examining the intersection between the goodness of God and the evil present in the world.

When bad things happen, we find ourselves in a tension between two beliefs we hold to be true – that God is in control and that God is love. Something has to break down somewhere. However, what I’ve seen is that usually we believe one of those statements just a little bit more than the other. Usually, we seem more certain that God is in control than we are that God is love.

Why is that? I think a lot of it has to do with the prevailing images we use when talking about God. We talk about God as Creator, Master, Sovereign, King, Lord, Judge – all of these are accurate descriptors for God. They tell us that God is powerful and in control. On the other hand, we also have images that talk about God’s love – a mother hen who gathers chicks, a father who longingly waits for the return of a lost son, a man who invites us to a banquet, a woman who frantically looks for the precious thing that has been lost – these are also accurate descriptors for God. However, these images are a bit more poetic, a bit more nuanced, a bit harder to understand, and so when we come to a place where it appears that God’s love is in tension with God’s control, we jettison love from the equation so that it will balance on the control side.

Last week, we marked the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti. A year later, did you know that 95% of the rubble in the capital, Port-au-Prince, hasn’t even been cleaned up? This week, a cube was placed in uptown Charlotte with five tons of earthquake rubble taken from Haiti, to remind us of the devastation that continues to take place and the years of work that are still needed there. Those five tons of rubble represent 0.00015% of the rubble that is still there in Haiti. That means there are still nearly three and a half million TONS of rubble. Logan Smith and Michelle Chiu from our congregation have already been on mission trips to Haiti since the earthquake; Laine Levandowski is joining another trip taking place within the next few months. They can tell you what the devastation is like.

Now, you may remember that in the days following the earthquake, so-called Christian television personality Pat Robertson said the earthquake hit Haiti as a punishment from God, because hundreds of years ago, the people there made a pact with the devil. His comments perfectly illustrate this idea that God is in control of everything, and everything that happens is somehow orchestrated by God and part of some divine plan. Insurance companies don’t help by naming natural disasters as “acts of God.”

When love is taken out of the picture, the image of God that remains is one who inflicts illness, who kills people in accidents, who advocates war, who embraces genocide, who orchestrates violence and injustice and oppression and tragedy. When love is taken out of the picture, people make claims that since God controls everything, every bad thing is done for a reason as a display of God’s judgment.

That’s just not consistent with who God is, and I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in following a God like that. Is it any wonder, when God is presented as always being in control of everything – including suffering, tragedy, and evil – that so many people have said, “No thanks.”

So what should we do? Well, remember that we often find ourselves making a choice between God being in control of everything, and God being loving. Well, what if we believe what the Bible tells us, that the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13)? What if love conquers all? What if John Wesley was right, and love really is God’s reigning attribute? What if love wins every time? What if the Beatles were right, and all you need is love? And if that’s true, then is it possible to even suggest that perhaps God is not in control of everything?

Let that sink in for a minute. That’s my proposal this morning: that God is not in control of everything. Remember, our understanding of God and God’s character comes down to a bit a boxing match between love and control. And here’s a hint: love wins every time. When it comes to God, the answer is always love. If you remember nothing else from today’s message, remember this: for something to be truly of God, it must be motivated primarily by love.

God wants to relate to all humanity through love, and for love to be genuine, it must be reciprocal. Love is freely-chosen, it is never forced, and so if God is going to relate to us through love, God takes the risk that we may not love God in return. You see, we can choose whether or not we will return the love that God has for us. God doesn’t compel us to love God or make us love God, God gives us the ability to freely choose whether we will love. And because there is the aspect of choice involved, we can safely say that God doesn’t control everything. Precisely because God is love, God has self-limited God’s own control in the world.

Friends, God isn’t a control freak. Despite what you may think, God doesn’t have some very detailed plan for everything that will ever happen. Everything that happens in the world is not, in fact, part of some divine plan working itself out and coming to fruition. God’s will is not this magic line that starts at the beginning and stretches off beyond the horizon of time to some point called “the end.” It’s much more open-ended than that. God is a gambler. God is a risk-taker. God takes the risk with each one of us, that every decision we make, every crossroad we come to, we will make the decision that reflects the right thing and the loving thing, but the result of those decisions is not pre-determined. God makes a gamble that we will do the right thing.

Has someone ever hurt you? Put your hand up if someone has ever hurt you. Have you ever hurt someone else? Clearly, we make mistakes. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we fall on our faces, sometimes we clearly don’t the right thing or the loving thing. And if we go back to our premise that all things from God are motivated by love, then it stands to good reason that God is not in control of every occurrence, because we all do things that are not motivated by love, and hurtful, painful things happen all the time. And because God is love, we know that God is not behind those things.

Sometimes what we people of faith do is sorta read God back into the story to explain hurtful and tragic things that have taken place in our lives and in the lives of others. The scripture reading we looked at right before the sermon illustrates this point. In Genesis 45, which we read, Joseph meets up with his brothers. Let me recap the highlights of this particular story. Growing up, Joseph had many brothers, but Joseph was their father’s favorite. To be perfectly honest, Joseph knew he was the favorite, and he was a little obnoxious about it, and his brothers resented him for it. So one day, they beat him up, took his coat of many colors, which was a favorite gift from their father, and left him in a pit to die. But then, along the road came some travelers from Egypt, and they realized they could make a few bucks by selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt.

We know that Joseph gained favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and despite some personal setbacks, was eventually put in a position of influence and power that was second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph interprets the king’s dreams about years of plentiful harvest and years of famine, and he devises a plan to lay aside some of the surplus grain through the good years that will sustain the people’s need for food during the famine, and as a result, people come to Egypt from surrounding countries to buy food, and we find Joseph’s brothers among those who are there for that purpose. Joseph himself says, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”

Joseph himself reads the story, and even the act of being sold into slavery he interprets as some sort of divine plan that worked itself out for a greater purpose, Joseph reads the story as the details of some divinely-orchestrated plan with nothing happening without a direct decree from God, but I want to invite us to re-read the story. And as we re-consider some of the key details, I want us to remember the central premise we’ve already agreed on – for something to be from God, it has to be loving.

Earlier in the story, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. So tell me, was selling him into slavery a loving thing to do or not? If it’s not loving, then God wasn’t involved in it. So, was selling Joseph into slavery something God could have been involved in?

God is love; the whole thing hinges on that very premise. And because love must be freely chosen and can’t be compelled or forced, God has freely given up some aspect of controlling the world. In so doing, God takes a risk, God takes a gamble, and God even chooses to be vulnerable to what creation might do.

But if God doesn’t control everything, then how does God work God’s purposes in the world? It’s simple: God works with what is available. It works sorta like this. Have you ever listened to The Splendid Table on NPR on Saturdays? Part of the program is their “Stump the Chef” feature, in which callers will name three ingredients in their kitchen, and it is up to the show’s host to come up with a recipe the caller could make with only those three ingredients. Likewise, God works with the ingredients we bring, God works behind the scenes, and God makes use of opportunities that arise through human agency and activity.

Rather than controlling everything, God works with the circumstances available. So when we make a wrong turn, when we mess up, when some tragedy occurs in our life, it’s not that we say God deliberately messed up our lives or it was part of some divine plan that tragedy struck or God must be trying to teach us something or show us something or direct us in some way. Rather, given the place where we find ourselves, God says, “All right, since you find yourself right here, right now – from this point forward, what would be the best thing for you?” We must understand that tragedy does not come from God. At the same time, we approach those difficult times with an outlook that says, “God, if you can do something good with this, please do.”

A mature faith recognizes that God is not the author of suffering and evil in the world, that God is not in control of everything, simply because there are so many things happen that do not happen out of love, and as such, they are not from God. Even so, God can still work in those situations. Good can come out of difficulty, and we must recognize that God did not send us a tragedy in order to bring a good out of it.

If God doesn’t control everything, how else does God work God’s purposes in the world? Friends, let’s not forget the role that we are called to play. It matters that we are part of the church, it matters that we are God’s hands and feet on earth, it matters that we called to be the body of Christ, it matters that we are instructed to clothe ourselves with love, and that everything we do should be motivated by our love for God and neighbor.

Friends, God is love, which means that God has freely given up some control, God has taken a risk, God has made a gamble, God has made God’s self vulnerable that what God most desires in the world – love – may not happen. Can I let you in on a secret? The degree to which God’s control and desire is exercised in the world rests not in some divine cosmic plan, but with each of us. You and I determine the extent to which God is in control, because when we don’t act out of love, we thwart God’s control. When we don’t act out of love, we are working against God.

Does God control everything? No, because God is love. God relates to the world not by exercising control, but by exercising love. The deeper our relationship with God develops, the better we experience God’s love, which enables us to better understand how we should live and better give ourselves in loving service to God.

In the end, it matters more, not that we have a God who controls everything, but that we have a God who faithfully responds to us out of love. May we be people who respond not out of our desire for control, but out of our desire to express love.


  1. I like the sermon (because I agree). However, where I honestly struggle with my faith this: If your premise is true, that God only exercises love in the world, do we even need God in the equation? Can't we love one another without God at all? It's difficult, because my definition of what love is generally doesn't come from the Bible (as does yours, according to your sermon), although it is influenced by the Bible. But such a definition of love could just as easily come from Buddhism, where although "love" isn't defined as such explicitly, it's clearly there implicitly in Buddhist teaching. So are we better off Buddhists, agnostics, or even atheists, leaving off the God talk? It's a serious question, because many of my peers are choosing this route. Would appreciate your insights.

  2. This is an excellent question, and thanks for raising it. Obviously any sermon, blog post, discussion, etc. is just a snapshot of the entire issue; a question like this could take a lifetime to adequately discuss!

    What didn't get explicitly mentioned in the sermon was the presence is the constant presence of evil in the world. You can call this "evil," "the devil," "Satan" - I'm not so hung up on what word we choose to use, so long as we recognize that we will live in a bi-polar system - love on one end, evil on the other.

    I do believe that we, as humans, are incapable of overcoming the evil we encounter. Though we were created in the image of God with the same capacity for love as God, our wills are also bent and broken away from God (We can call this sin - a moving away from God in our lives). Since our wills bend away from God, it is impossible for us to overcome temptation and evil on our own.

    That, I believe, is where God becomes necessary. While it is true that love overcomes evil and love is stronger than evil, on our own, we don't know how to love enough to overcome evil. The presence of evil is very real; we don't have to look far to see it. So where do we find a love that is great enough and strong enough to overcome evil in our world? In God. Going back to the premise that "God is Love" that ran throughout the sermon - God is the source of all love. Perfect love, true love, sacrificial love, giving love - all love finds its source in God.

    That's where God is necessary. On my own, I am too weak to overcome evil. I don't have enough love within me to overcome evil, and I am not strong enough to simple "decide" to love. I need to be plugged into a source of love that is greater than me and also strong enough to overcome evil. That source, is God.

    For me to love, I have to plugged into the source of all love, and that's God.

    Does that make sense? I appreciate the good dialogue here.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I agree with everything you have posted and I also have a question for you. I would love for you to reply when you have a chance.

    I've heard preachers at funerals and during prayer request times say things like, "The Lord call Jerry home..." or "It was Jerry's time to go to the Lord..."

    We have also seen children die and someone will say, "The Lord has a plan for Johnny..."

    It is hard for me to believe that God controls when we die, whether it is from natural causes, accidents, murder, natural disasters. Can you give me your opinion?

    Thanks in advanced... :)

  4. Yeah, I hear things like that all the time: "It was God's will for such and such to happen," "This was all part of the Lord's plan," "God called so-and-so home," etc.

    All this to say, I'm where you are. There are many things that happen in the world that are outside of our control and God's control.

    The earthquake in Japan, for example. That wasn't an act of God. The earthquake was caused by shifts in the tectonic plates that cover the earth's surface, and the movement and shifts of those plates are part of the earth's natural system for cooling itself. In short, the earth was designed in such a way that as it works its natural processes out, things like earthquakes happen. It is sad and tragic when people are in the way of these natural processes. So, where we find in something like that earthquake is not in the earthquake itself, but in how the people of God respond to the tragedy - with aid, support, and relief.

    Likewise, God's not controlling when people die. Accidents are just that - accidental. People dying in natural disasters is covered in the example I just gave about the earthquake. Murder is a horrible thing that people do to each other; God certainly isn't involved in that! Illness is the result of processes in the body taking their due course, as is death from natural causes.

    So no, to answer your question, God is not causing people to die. Life is designed in such a way that death is part of it, but God is not specifically orchestrating the events and sequence by which every person dies.

  5. Pastor Thomas,

    I enjoyed your sermon paper and quite agree with you. With your kind permission, I would like to extract portions for a paper I am writing. I am involved in prison ministry in the high desert of So. California.
    John Miller

  6. Hi John -

    If anything here is helpful to you, you are welcome to extract and use as you need.

  7. thank you for your posts and notes etc. much appreciated. a scripture that i find that proves that people have a free will to do evil is Micah 2:1>>>> We not only have free will to choose HIM and HIS kingdom - but to do evil too. Yet i have never ever heard this scripture preached about or used when it comes to IS GOD IN CONTROL OF EVERYTHING?? I also think that Calvinism and all its threads etc has created many many MANY more atheists in the world. Because it seems the world thinks that ALL CHRISTIANS believe that GOD is in ABSOLUTE control of ALL that goes down. How terribly sad. How devestating!!!

    Thank you for a great site!!

    Laura from Italy - where GOD is NOT in control!!!! :-)

  8. Pastor, I have been dealing with this exact question for a while now. And, while I want to lean towards your conclusions, I am confronted with so much scripture detailing God being in control, no accidents (rolling of dice, death of a sparrow, He causes calamity, Ananias in Acts being struck dead, etc. Rest assured, I am a believer and have experienced the goodness for God. I am just hoping this is not as much a mystery as it seems, and please provide your thoughts on reconciling scriptures incidents I highlighted above with God not being in complete control. Thanks for your post, I really enjoyed your perspective. With Gratitude, Mike from Houston